“We are going to die. We are going to slip off the road and die,” was the only thing that my friend Leland could say as he sat in the passenger seat of our rental car. Leland and I were traveling to Paris after several days in Barcelona. We decided that we would drive to Andorra, a tiny principality tucked in between the borders of France and Spain and smack dab in the middle of the Pyrenees mountain range. The plan was to stay the night and then continue on to Paris in the morning. I am grateful we did because the next morning we ended up sliding down a frozen mountain road in our rented Audi station wagon.
“We have limited time, we’ll see more of the country that way, and we can stop wherever we want if we decide to make a few side trips.” It is not the most economical way of seeing Europe, but Leland and I were only careening around the EU for two weeks and we wanted to squeeze in as many sights as possible. We agreed driving was the way to go.
We headed towards Andorra la Vella after getting a late start leaving Barcelona. Thankful to get a few hours rest after a jam packed beginning to the trip. For those unfamiliar with Andorra, I was too and completely unaware it existed until we needed a place to stay. The capital or only city in the principality is Andorra la Vella. Andorra is known primarily as a ski resort town, which was confusing because we had not seen any snow at that point, but we were surrounded by people waiting to get on the slopes the next day.
The morning sun greets us through the shutters, we grab a quick breakfast, and hop in the car to make our way to Paris. The road climbs higher and we catch our first glimpse of snow lining the street. A set of flashing signs alert us that we might need chains. We make a left and before we knew it we were halfway up a frozen, snow drift covered road. I punch the accelerator to grab some traction but our tires spin helplessly and we start sliding backwards down the road. Most other travelers had gotten the idea much earlier so we were not in danger of hitting any other cars. We were in danger of hitting the snow bank at the bottom of the hill and thankfully skid to a stop just before nose diving into the ice covered guard rail.
Our Audi crawls back to iceless pavement and a roundabout brings us to a tunnel undercutting one of the higher peaks. It seems logical that we might be able to skirt the chains requirement by avoiding going over the peak. The artificial light from the tunnel ends and our station wagon is at a fork in the road. Turn right for the ski resorts. Left to Paris and down a switch backed, frozen stretch of service road through the Pyrenees in the middle of winter. Right it is.
The car starts gently sliding and I start giggling like a little school girl I am so nervous. Leland is chain smoking hand rolled cigarettes in assembly line fashion. He would roll a cigarette, start furiously puffing on it, and then would immediately begin rolling another to keep himself distracted from the impending doom facing us as we slid around the guardrail-less hairpin turns. It took us over an hour to ride the brakes down the mountain switchbacks. It might have been years as we traveled what couldn’t have been more than 2 miles.
Obviously, we survived. It was not as obvious at the time that would be the outcome and as soon as our wheels hit solid, dry pavement we stopped the car and started dancing and screaming, “I love life!” The Pyrenees had captured our respect and we were awestruck by their bleak and looming snowcapped peaks. Terrified as we were, standing at the bottom of the range gave new cause for our jaws to drop as their initially estimated size did no justice to their grandeur or the majesty we felt staring back at them from our much lower, safer perspective.
I am grateful to be alive and, strangely, I am grateful for Andorra la Vella. We needed a place to stay after driving late into the night and Andorra invited us to rest for a few extra hours at exactly the right time. I am grateful because without Andorra la Vella, Leland and I would be stuck on the side of a mountain in the middle of the night. What’s worse, we might not have made it to where the ice met the pavement.
About the Author: Casey Keenan lives in San Francisco, enjoys good beer, and is looking to buy a fish tank in the near future. He hopes that the fish aren’t too much of a commitment so he can continue to travel as much as possible.
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